I get the joke. I get that when Borat bumbles around America being as offensive and racist as possible that it's a trick, a device to encourage his interview subjects to reveal their own racism and ignorance.
And it works. It worked in the first Borat film, released in 2006, as Americans were lulled into sharing various anti-Semitic and racist statements by their new anti-Semitic and racist friend. And it works in the second film, just released, as Borat uses his 15-year-old "daughter" to pillory misogyny and the patriarchy in the US, while also finding time for more anti-Semitism and racism, and having Rudy Giuliani fondle.
Borat is a buffoon. He looks ridiculous. He sounds ridiculous. People drop their guard when they're around him, thinking they've found a kindred spirit, little realising the joke is on them.
However, with Sacha Baron Cohen's characters there's always more than one joke. With Ali G, the joke was on the unsuspecting interview subjects, but it was also on the white, middle class kids appropriating black culture in the UK at that time – just like Ali G. With Bruno, the joke was on the homophobic interviewees, but it was also a (mostly) good-natured send-up of gay fashionistas – like Bruno.
And so while the character of Borat is used to expose ignorance and racism on the part of the people he interviews, there's another joke, which is on the people of Kazakhstan, who are also racist, also anti-Semitic, also misogynistic, also ignorant. Right?
Well, most viewers wouldn't know for sure, which is the comedic genius behind it. Baron Cohen didn't choose Kazakhstan at random. As with all of his characters, there's been some very careful calibration done here to ensure his "punching down" is done in a way that isn't offensive.
If Borat was Indian, complete with ridiculous sub-continental accent, it just wouldn't work. A white English guy playing a bumbling, racist Indian? Not a chance (there's a reason Mahatma Cote has been forcibly retired. Similarly, Borat could never have been Hispanic. It would be highly offensive. Same with east Asian, same with Middle Eastern, same with African.
But Kazakh? You can get away with Kazakh. You can get away with Kazakh mostly because the people watching Borat don't know anything about the country. They don't immediately take offence to any mischaracterisations, because they're not sure if there are any. They don't feel bad for any Kazakh friends they might have, because they don't have them.
It's also OK to laugh at Kazakhs because we kind of like laughing at anywhere in the former USSR. It takes a long time to stop being the enemy. So we have a giggle at Vladimir Putin's bare-chested machismo despite the fact he's clearly a despotic lunatic. And we laughed at Borat the first time, despite the caricature of ignorant, racist Kazakhs (and despite the fact we didn't even understand that the Kazakh language he was speaking onscreen was fluent Hebrew).
In fact, that's the only reason the main joke worked: because people in the West were so quick to believe that this is what Kazakhs are really like. Not just the subjects on-screen either – the viewers believed it as well. There's a third joke here and it's on you, on your ignorance.
All of which brings me around to those good people of Kazakhstan. The actual Kazakhs. Because I've been to the country, and I've met plenty of people there. I've met kind people, I've met intelligent people, I've met normal people. I visited Almaty, an historic city as beautiful as any European stronghold. I experienced Kazakh culture both ancient and amazing.
I found things that were strange there, too. In the modern capital, then called Astana, now known as Nur-Sultan, I found a purpose-built paean to the country's god-like leader, a city filled with monuments and tributes to the president. I found a bitterly cold and at times bleak country where the West was generally disliked, or at least distrusted.
I'm not here to tell you the Kazakh people are perfect. I wrote a story after that trip that was mildly critical of Kazakhstan's national dish (horse meat and pasta) and people were sending me actual death threats for months.
But I still felt sorry for them, because everyone around the world knows about their country now because of Borat. And that's not exactly a good thing. Everyone thinks they're racist. Everyone thinks they're ignorant. Everything thinks they're from some "retrograde foreign backwater", as a review of the recent Borat film charmingly puts it. And yet the country I found was certainly no worse than many others. (I could name a few superpowers who lead the way there.)
Plenty of the Kazakhs I met seemed baffled by the whole thing. "Why us?" someone said to me. "What did we ever do?"
And now the whole world, once again, is laughing at Borat. It's laughing at America. And of course it's laughing at Kazakhstan.
I get the joke. But if it was anyone else, it wouldn't be funny.
Have you been to Kazakhstan, or Central Asia? Do you think Borat is unfair to the country? Would the joke still be funny if we knew more about Kazakhstan?